Much of the attention on this year's Council race has been focused on electoral challenge newcomers Donald Hughes and Pastor Sylvester Williams, who certainly have made an otherwise-quiet municipal election interesting.
Less has been heard of conservative or libertarian-leaning candidates like John Tarantino or Matt Drew. Long shots? Longtime Durham political watcher (and former Council member) Frank Hyman doesn't think so, and he shares why in this guest column, provided for your pleasure here on this primary election day.
Frank's never one to be afraid to stake out a controversial position, and he doesn't disappoint here -- and he has past election outcomes to back it up.
Incumbent Cora Cole-McFadden was bested by Donald Hughes for the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People’s endorsement. And incumbent Howard Clement nearly lost that endorsement to Pastor Sylvester Williams.
Because of that, there’s been a lot of attention focused on Williams and Hughes, and I’ll bet a lot of readers anticipate seeing both of them finishing in the top two with the incumbents.
However, Durham's election history indicates that one or both of the surviving challengers may be John Tarantino (in Cole-McFadden’s ward) and/or Matt Drew (in Clement’s.)
Clement will capture a large majority of the black vote given his history and the Committee's endorsement. Williams will likely garner votes in the high 3 figures or low 4 figures for a likely third place finish.
Cole-McFadden, will still pull about half of the black vote given her history in this town. And given that many black voters blew off the Committee's endorsement of Hughes’ mother—Jackie Wagstaff--the last time she ran for school board, I think we'll see a similar dynamic in this race. Hughes will break into 4 figures certainly, giving him no more than a 50/50 chance of surviving. But I think there’s good reason to think he’ll finish a close 3rd place.
So why would either Tarantino and Drew, who have very limited civic experience and modest campaigns, come in 2nd and survive the primary?
A careful look at past election precinct tallies shows that when the Friends of Durham endorse a black candidate, about 40-60 % of the voters who would normally follow their lead, look for a white face to vote for. This has been a consistent pattern since the Friends jelled as an organization in the early 90’s.
For those new to the Bull City, the Friends brands itself as a “moderate-to-conservative” political group. In Durham that means they generally have influence with Republicans, Libertarians, conservative and some moderate Democrats. They restrict their endorsements to local races, perhaps to avoid internal division between Republicans and Democrats.
My understanding from conversations with leaders is that membership is broadly considered as anyone who has ever donated to the organization. Unfortunately, membership is not enough to allow you a vote at an endorsement meeting. To do that, you have to wrangle a seat on their steering committee, composed of 40-50 members. It used to be an all white committee, but they have done a good job of involving some number of African-Americans over the last decade.
A close look at overwhelmingly white precincts in city, school board and county races, shows that on occasions when the Friends endorses a black candidate—even a Republican—that candidate’s precinct tally drops by about half when compared to their white “slate-mates,” when voters have the option of voting for another white candidate, even when that candidate is more progressive.
A good example from the ’97 election would be Floyd McKissick’s endorsement by the Friends, which garnered him only about 40% of the votes in overwhelmingly white precincts outside the city center as compared to his slate-mates. Those missing votes ended up in white candidate Pam Blythe’s column, even though her only endorsement was from the progressive People’s Alliance (PA) and her stands on some issues were to the left of McKissick’s.
Interestingly, both McKissick and Blythe scored well enough to survive the general election. Blythe’s extra votes, when combined with a strong PA turnout, gave her enough votes to barely edge out the FoD’s lead candidate in that at-large race—John Best, Jr.
The African-American candidate who does best, when endorsed by the FoD and running against white candidates, is Howard Clement, who used to be a Republican through the 80’s and 90’s. He switched to unaffiliated during the recent Bush years. In overwhelmingly white precincts outside the city center, Clement has been able to garner about 60% as many votes as his white slate-mates--when those voters have the option of voting for a white candidate.
I wouldn’t say racism accounts for all those votes. But having grown up in the working class south and knowing how much racism has gone quietly covert since the 60’s, I’d be surprised if racism doesn’t account for the majority of these votes.
So I won’t be surprised if about half of the Friends of Durham voters will see that the group they pay attention to -- FoD -- has endorsed black candidates and then they will scan the ballot for a white face. And they will find it in John Tarantino, a Republican running against Cole-McFadden and Matt Drew, a Libertarian running against Clement.
Not that either challenger is a racist, or that everyone voting for them is a racist, but they will be unintentional beneficiaries of an informal coalition of racists, Libertarians and Republicans who will disregard the FoD endorsement and perhaps lift one or both of them into the November election.